When radicals do and do not give clues to meanings of Chinese character

Chinese teachers love teaching radicals, which are something so unique and so many appealing flash cards can be made with beautiful drawings and so on, such as the following one. (I admit the drawing is not that great on this flash card. Nevertheless, it will illustrate my points.)

radical fire

On the left side of this flash card, there is a drawing of a fire. Next to the fire, a character 火 is written. There is a clear resemblance between the character and the drawing. For anyone who does not know it, an English word “fire” is written below, to make sure the message is getting crossed, that the meaning of the character 火 is “fire”.

On the right side of the flash card, there are four characters. All of them have the character 火 as their radicals, 灯, 烟, 炉, and 炒. For the first three, this radical 火 does give some clues to the meanings, however, our association ability is till required. 

灯: lamp, lantern. In the old times when there was no electricity, people used oil lamps, sometimes candles, to light up the room. A fire is very visible on oil lamps or candles. 

烟: smoke, mist. When we light a fire, smoke is always there. No wonder 火 is the radical of the character for smoke.

炉: stove, oven. Nowadays, electric stoves do not have fire. But regular old fashioned stoves still use flames to cook. It makes sense that 火 is the radical of the character for stove. 

These three characters can be explained using their radical, and some kind of pictures can be drawn as illustrations. This is the reason that teachers love explaining radicals. But the fourth character proves to be a little bit difficult. 

炒: to stir fry, to speculate. It is an action of using a spatula going ups and downs in a wok. This character does not relate to fire directly, as you can still 炒几下 after you turn the fire off. And any drawing of a wok and spatula would give an impression that, 炒 means “cooking utensils”. As for the other meaning “to speculate”, it is even harder to have a picture for it. Therefore, no still illustration is readily available for this character. Hence on the flash card, unlike the other three character, the space for this character’s picture is left blank. 

If character 炒 is at the border line of using radicals to explain the meaning of Chinese characters, there are characters can not be explained by their radicals at all. Let’s continue with the radical 火. And we have the following character, which go further away from “fire”.

灵: spirit, soul

烂: rot, decay 

烦: be annoyed, be vexed 

烯: alkene 

These examples are meant to show that the claim “using radicals to learn Chinese characters is easier” is not true. There are always too many exceptions to this claim. 

We started this article using some characters containing the radical 火. It is also true for characters containing  “person イ”, “mouth 口”, or “water 氵” . There are always many exceptions. 

Moreover, there are also radicals which can not be connected to anything physical, such as “丨”, “匕”, or “而”. That’s why they are no where to be found in flash cards teaching radicals and characters. Nobody can draw anything to illustrate them. 

Therefore, next time when you read claims about how useful radicals are for learning Chinese characters, or see a deck of beautiful flash cards or posters illustrating radicals and characters, you need to know that it is only part of the fact, a small part of the whole universe of Chinese characters and their radicals. 

Radicals are good extracurricular activities. It is nice to know some connections between radicals and characters, especially when a long history is behind them. However, if you think studying radicals provides a shortcut for learning Chinese characters, you’ll end up wasting valuable time doing something not very effective. And radicals are definitely not a shortcut for proficient Chinese reading and writing skills.


April Zhang
Chinese Teacher
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